Sept. 23, 2011
BY JOHN PAINTER
For Joetta Clark Diggs, attending college at the University of Tennessee was more than just an athletics opportunity. It was a life-altering experience.
"I came here from New Jersey and I got a chance to see women in charge," said Clark Diggs, who was the featured speaker Monday at the UT College of Communications and Information's second annual Diversity and Inclusion Week.
"Terry Crawford was the head (track and field) coach, Pat Head Summitt was here, Debby Jennings was here and the AD was first Gloria Ray and then Joan Cronan came in," she said. "So for a little girl, seeing all these women in charge and winning, it was an inspiration."
Clark Diggs knows a thing or two about inspiring greatness. Her father, Dr. Joe Clark, was a successful New Jersey high school principal portrayed in the movie "Lean on Me."
And Clark Diggs herself is a four-time Olympian considered by track and field enthusiasts as one of the elite 800-meter runners of all time. During her UT career, she earned 15 All-America certificates, was a nine-time national champion and 10-time SEC champion.
Sydney Was Special
She was on the U.S. Olympic teams of 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000, but says Sydney 2000 will always hold a special place in her memory. In that year's U.S. Olympic Trials in Sacramento, Clark Diggs was part of a Clark family sweep of all three places in the 800 meters: sister Hazel Clark was first, sister-in-law Jearl Miles-Clark was second and Clark Diggs finished third by just .01 seconds.
"Sydney was my favorite because my sister made the team and my sister-in-law made the team," Clark Diggs said. "There's a 16-year difference between my sister and me, so for me to stay around long enough for her to get good enough to make it with me is a testament to God and to me as well."
The Clark trio's coach that year was another family member, J.J. Clark, who this year enters his 10th season as Director of UT Track & Field/Cross Country.
"That was fun and I remember there was a lot of attention on the family," J.J. Clark said of the Sydney experience. "Our camaraderie and our strong bonds with each other made it very exciting to go over there. We could really enjoy it when we had our family and friends with us at the same time.
"Being in the village, coaching three Olympians - my wife was the third member of the family and two sisters - was a very exciting moment."
Always a Lady Vol
Clark Diggs knew her brother had returned home in a way when he was named Lady Vols track and field head coach in 2002.
"I was excited," she said. "My brother, when he was in high school in New Jersey, would wear Tennessee gear and equipment. He went to Villanova and then to Florida before coming here, but he came full circle because he always has been, in a way, a Lady Vol because of me."
Clark Diggs' UT career was punctuated when Tennessee captured the 1981 AIAW National Outdoor Championship. She went on to be an inaugural member of the Lady Vols Hall of Fame in 2001, and then was ranked among America's top 10 middle-distance runners for more than 20 years. In addition, she was ranked top 10 in the world nine times.
The 2000 season was her last running track. Since then, Clark Diggs has remained active in the sports and education worlds.
She served as commissioner of sports in New Jersey and oversaw the Meadowlands Sports Complex, home to the Nets, Jets, Giants and Devils in three of the four major professional sports leagues. She currently is president of Joetta Sports & Beyond, and is executive director of the Joetta Clark Diggs Sports Foundation.
"I'm a motivational speaker and author and I travel across the country," Clark Diggs said. "I do corporate speaking, chamber speaking and college speaking; I do 5-6 per month.
"My foundation has been around since 2002 and we do programs focusing on obesity, life skills and nutrition. We were doing it before it became the thing to do. We do programs in New Jersey, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Texas, and we're into schools. My program is a mandatory program in school districts."
Clark Diggs spoke Monday on her keys to success for today's youth: accountability and self-motivation.
"The basic thing is don't blame anyone," she said. "If you want to be successful - yes, there are going to be trials and everyone has their own story of why I can't do something - but the world is full of `I can.' I can do all things; I can achieve; I can make my visions a reality. Kids have to understand that and understand the work ethic.
"Everyone has a set of cards they are dealt. Play your hand - but make sure you win at playing your hand. Don't try to win at my hand, because that's not what you were dealt."
23 Straight Years
Consistency was a Clark Diggs hallmark. She competed 23 straight years in New York City's Millrose Games, considered to be this nation's top indoor track and field competition. Twenty times she participated in a U.S. Indoor or Outdoor Championship.
"It doesn't happen overnight," she said. "I'm a four-time Olympian but I tried out six times, so I didn't make it twice. I didn't blame my coach, I didn't blame my doctor - it was something I had to work on for myself in order to make it happen."
During one of her last victorious 800-meter races, Clark Diggs beat the odds and beat out the younger competition to win the 2000 Millrose Games.
Monday night in Knoxville, Clark Diggs said she was asked after that race when she was going to retire. She replied to the reporter, "You shouldn't ask me when I'm going to retire. You should ask the people I just beat when they are going to retire."
Spoken like a true woman in charge.